Sustainable agriculture is a production system that is economically viable, environmentally sound, and socially just. Examples of sustainable soil management practices include overseeing cover crops into a cash crop for soil building, weed control, and crop nutrition purposes. Winter cover crops protect soil from erosion and leaching, recycle nutrients, and build soil organic matter.
Soil organic matter can increase soil water holding capacity, contribute to soil biological diversity, and may have disease suppressive properties. Crop rotation to prevent soilborne diseases is another key element of a sustainable cropping system.
In sustainable systems, biological sources contribute to crop nutrition and pest management. Legumes play a major role for nitrogen fixation, while small grains and grasses may be able to mine or capture phosphorus and potassium. An increasing number of effective biological crop protectants are becoming available. Appropriate management is needed for these living organisms to ensure their efficiency.
The use of fresh animal manures in vegetable production is becoming more controversial based on potential human health hazards. Composting of manure is used to manage possible pathogen contamination.
Biodiversity can be enhanced through the use of cover crops and “beetle banks.” Beetle banks are strips of specific plant species planted along the borders of fields that provide habitat for beneficial insects. The distance between strips must be adequate to allow beneficials to migrate between the strips and the crop.
A large number of sustainable practices are biologically based and each practice will be impacted by environmental interactions, and specific management practices for each system component may vary by region. Therefore, sustainable cropping practices will evolve as growers adapt specific practices to meet specific needs in their farming environment. It is for this reason that sustainable agricultural practices are often referred to as a path and not an end.